A Long Awaited Pilgrimage
To the devout believer, few things in life pose greater meaning than “the pilgrimage”. As a self proclaimed connoisseur of all things malt, I had my chance at enlightenment last year at the Dewer’s Aberfeldy Distillery. This is not to say that I have foregone my fondness for the smoky isles or islands, not in the slightest. In fact they still stand as lifelong dreams to visit, to savour the sights and sounds of the smokiest distilleries in the world. However this trip did mark a lifelong obsession to see what a “real Scottish distiller” looked like in all its glory. And while the evidence of commercialisation doesn’t take more than the first signboard on the path to the distillery to give way (See above), it in no way reduced the sheer joy that I had when I saw my first pot still boil away and produce one of the worlds most prolific single malts.
I would urge you to take a look at our article on the biggest scotch producers, with a segment dedicated to Dewar’s and its legacy to the world of whisky, to give this article more meaning.
My journey to understand the amber Ambrosia, was a part of a tour visiting Speyside and a bit of the Highlighlands. While I am no outsider to travelling scenic destinations (a perk of having a military upbringing) I can say without a doubt, that Scotland took me by surprise. One is given to believe that it is nothing more than gloomy mires and valleys with even gloomier weather. While the latter wasn’t completely off (we did go through quite a bit of rain and some segments of thick mist) the former couldn’t be any further from the truth. Picturesque hills and mountains, rivulet’s and flowers fill what could only be the inspiration of countless fairy-tales. We passed by Dunkeld (a small village with a medieval cathedral set upon the banks of the river Tay) before heading up to Pitlochry (another village which personally didn’t strike me as particularly interesting, but does have a small sweet shop next to its town centre that serves a fantastic single malt softie) and passed by the Queen’s View (one of the most stunning sights to behold, and if to be believed took it’s name after Queen Victoria remarked on its beauty) before finally arriving at the outskirts of the village of Aberfeldy. You could bypass Pitlochery and go straight to Aberfeldy from Dunkeld, but I would highly recommend taking the detour, for some once in a lifetime sights.
The first thing that you will notice when you approach the distillery, is how the moss on rocks in the area has taken up a dark almost charcoal like shade, a result from the microclimate produced from the bellowing chimneys of the distillery. This is followed by a slightly commercial sign signalling you have arrived to the HQs of one of the worlds largest producers of Whisky. How much you might ask ? Well this distillery has 2 wash and spirit stills that have a combined capacity of 35,00,000 Litres. That’s a lot of whisky (just bout’ enough for a Punjabi wedding though!). Once you navigate up from the parking, you will find a path which takes you straight up across the maturing houses to the entrance of the Distillery’s Cafe (which also doubles as the front desk). Here you will have the opportunity to select from selection of tours; this includes the base tour of the distillery with a taste of some of the signature blends the distillery offers, to more exclusive selections which pair chocolate or allow you to try whisky straight from the barrels to an all day pass travelling down each nook and crany of the estate. For those with a tight schedule the Cask Tasting tour is the way to go at £18 per person if you are going on your own, or subsidised if you are going as a part of a local tour group. (Do note for some extensive tours it is better to call the distillery in advance, as schedules of said experiences are on certain select days only).
For the purposes of this article, I shall give you a rundown of my tour itself. It will begin with your tour guide giving you a brief of the distillery, how it was setup in 1896 for its location next to the Pitilie Burn stream (the water is available in small vials to put in your whisky, weather that does anything to add to the flavour however is debatable at best, but makes for a great souvenir!). The distillery will point out how the terroir and water from the stream has contributed to the overall flavour profile of Aberfeldy’s single malt. This also happens to be one of the core single malts used to give Dewers is signature blend and taste, the other major ones being Craigellachie and Royal Bracka. Following this you shall be guided through the various parts of the distillery. Do keep in mind there is no photography allowed from this point onward till the aging room. You will be taken through the entire process, from seeing the grain bubbling away, fermenting to make wort (which un-surprisingly enough was the most pungent liquid I have ever inhaled, it’s fermented grain juice after all), to the vats used to boil the liquid, to the spirit stills in all their glory. Interestingly enough one will come to appreciate that whisky takes far fewer people to make than one would think. This distillery has fewer than 50 people tending the entire complex, that includes everyone from the cashier at the lounge till the master blender. Effectively only 15 people tend the actual whisky making process. And yet they are capable of satiating the palate of whisky enthusiasts across the globe. Pretty incredible stuff indeed.
Once you exit the main distillery, with a look into the colossal stills, you will make your way into the the storage rooms. This in itself is broken into two segments, the first where you are taken into the old weighing room. Where in times gone by each cask was weighed to ensure no pilferage, before the spirit made its way into the main cellar. It also has on display, bottles that depict the original ratio of Whiskys used to make the Dewers Blend (very interesting, and very well put).
Once you have spent a little time here, you shall make your way to the main cellar room. To the unappreciative it is little more than a cold dingy brick hall, filled with old wooden barrels, but to any whisky enthusiast it is the very definition of the promise land. Hundreds of barrels filled with liquid gold, all constantly monitored by the master blender and distillery to ensure the signature Aberfeldy sweetness.
It is here that you will be able to appreciate how much whisky is truly lost to the angels share (via a barrel with a glass screen) and the incredible task that a few men in the world are truly adept at undertaking i.e ensuring that ant 2 bottles of Aberfeldy whisky taste the same. It becomes even more apparent when you realise, each barrel produces its own taste profile, rendering the possible combination’s limitless. If you did opt for the cask tasting tour, it is at this point you will be able to take on whisky straight from the barrel. This is nothing like whisky in bottles. Unfiltered, untamed, unblended and most importantly un-diluted. Yes no water to bring it down to the standard 40’s of regular whisky. No this is nearly 60% ABV fire water. While it will give you a glimpse into the sweetness of the blend it is used for, even mildly peachy flavour’s. It does so after burning your throat, if taken too quickly (Something that I regret to no end). It is here that the standard tour ends, but not before the distillery likes pointing out a celebrity who adores their single malt like no other, Ed Sheeren, who has in-fact got a tattoo of the label on his arm.
Once I was ushered back to the main café before shipping off back to the shuttle, token souvenirs’ in hand. I remembered how as a student sitting in Mumbai, being told of these mysterious places that existed. In the mists of Scotland’s valleys, where bellowing smoke signalled not danger but comfort and safety. Where a chosen few dedicated their life to supplying tables across the world with laughter, or broken men in bars with a cure no medicine can buy. I had the opportunity o visit one such place. Make no mistake, one distillery will never be enough for me, and I shall aim to visit as many as I can throughout my life. But this was a boys dream come true. If no other way to prove it, look at my smile, next to the brilliant guide to Scotland that I had (Desmond).
Stay safe, during these challenging times. And I do hope once this lockdown lifts, you too can experience this slice of Scotland for yourself. As a hotelier and a member of the hospitality industry, I know how our sector will be affected by these circumstances. And while I don’t believe in indulging in social commentary at any point in my writing, I feel it is only right that I do highlight that this will cause a loss of livelihood to many fine hard working people, which granted is unavoidable and for the betterment for our countries to remain secure. And when this does tide over, however long that may be… go visit these tourist attractions, and help support these fine people, in doing what they do best…….
BONUS – Tasting Notes
- Aberfeldy 12 YOPRICE : Rs 4170/- (1000ml)
NOSE: Sweet, Custard, Slight stone fruit
PALATE: Vanilla, Peach, Sweet
FINISH: Malty with a touch of spice
CONCLUSION: Easy Drinking, smooth and sweet, with a touch of malt and spice